CHESTER, Conn. — On a warm September afternoon, Sen. Chris Murphy ambled through a picturesque stretch of farm country, listening to birds chirp and thinking about how he’ll politicize the next mass shooting.
“You cannot accept the premise that there is any waiting period after a tragedy to start engaging in political action,” he said, trudging along a winding two-lane road in a Red Sox cap, a Hawk’s Nest Beach T-shirt and dad shorts. “I think you need to be unapologetic about that. I am talking about legislative action within an hour of a shooting. These shootings won’t stop unless we move seamlessly from tragedy to action.”
It was this philosophy that prompted the Connecticut Democrat, within days after the June massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub that killed 49 people, to seize the Senate floor for a 15-hour filibuster in pursuit of gun control. Was it a stunt? Sure. But Murphy, 43, sees value in political stunts. He was in the midst of one right now: a five-day, 126.5-mile walk across his home state that was a chance for Murphy to talk about guns or anything else on the minds of folks he bumped into.
Folks like Billie-Jean Severi, a 57-year-old woman in a floppy straw hat and wraparound sunglasses, who happened upon the peppy lawmaker while walking her little white dog. If Murphy was looking for an on-the-nose moment, he found one: Severi was deaf, but even she thought the 2016 election had gotten too loud.
“I took myself off of Facebook and Twitter because I don’t want to hear it anymore,” she said.
The noise of the political theater has never bothered Murphy. He admits to loving the “game” and to being a “big ball of political ambition.” This self-awareness makes him an odd fit for 2016, when even the people running for president are obligated to pretend not to be politicians.
Though not facing reelection for another two years, Murphy has charged into the election-year circus in hopes of making the November vote a referendum on his big cause: background checks for purchasers of firearms. He championed the issue in a speech at the Democratic National Convention and will stump for candidates who see eye-to-eye with him — including Hillary Clinton.
“Some people thought Clinton was only using the gun issue as a way to differentiate herself from Bernie Sanders, and that after the primary she would stop talking about it,” said Murphy, who will appear for Clinton in Ohio in early October. “But she continues to make it an issue, and so will I.”
When Murphy first came to Congress in 2007, he had never spent much time thinking about background checks or automatic weapons bans. He was in the House then, serving a rural and suburban district in western Connecticut that was mostly untouched by gun violence. Then, in 2012, Adam Lanza murdered 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown.
Murphy was at the train station in Bridgeport, taking his young son to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, when he got the call. (Murphy still hasn’t talked about the events of that day with his now-8-year-old son: “I’ve never told someone the story of Sandy Hook who doesn’t know it. How does an innocent react? I’m kind of petrified to find out.”) Murphy knew right away his life had changed. But at the moment, he didn’t know what to do next.
“I got caught in a trap,” he said. “My instinct was to let a few days go by, to allow a time to grieve without talking about policy.”
But at the first Sandy Hook memorial service he attended, Murphy and his colleague, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), met a young victim’s father and promised that they would start figuring out a way to make change whenever he was ready.
“He said, ‘We’re ready now,’ ” Murphy recalled.
Until recently, Democrats had long been hesitant to make gun control a signature issue. Many thought a backlash against the 1994 passage of a federal assault weapons ban was the reason the GOP was able to regain control of the House that year for the first time in four decades — so for years, Democrats largely avoided the topic, for fear of drawing the ire of the National Rifle Association. But after a string of gun massacres — Sandy Hook, Aurora, Tucson — that began to change.
“This is something we should politicize,” President Obama said in an address to the nation after a shooter killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last fall. Suddenly, the politics were looking better for Democrats: Nearly 9 in 10 Americans supported some form of background checks.
By the time of Orlando nightclub shooting, Murphy no longer felt the need to seek permission. Instead, he sought the spotlight.
A few mornings after the massacre, he headed to the Senate chambers where he promised to speak “for as long as I can” to push his colleagues on gun control legislation. Murphy held the floor for nearly 15 hours with the help of 38 of his 45 fellow Democrats. He ended the filibuster after securing a commitment for a vote on a bill that would ban people on the terrorist watch list from buying a gun. The bill failed, but for Murphy it was still a success. One of the first people to call him and tell him that: Hillary Clinton.
Since then, Murphy says it’s been easier to raise money for himself and other candidates.
“Some people were sheepish about that, but they shouldn’t be,” he said about a practice that can be construed as exploiting personal tragedy for political gain. “Why are we doing any of this? We are engaged in the business of building organizations to try to beat bad guys in elections.”
(This week, after shootings in Washington state and Texas, Murphy took to Twitter: “Hey everybody — people opening fire at shopping malls and college campuses is not normal. We shouldn’t accept it. We can stop it if we want.”)
It’s also become easier to get booked on television, another part of the job that Murphy, unlike many of his colleagues, doesn’t even pretend to dislike.
“Everyone doing this job is fooling themselves if they don’t admit that we are attracted to the show business element of it,” he said. “We are all doing this in part because we enjoy being in front of the cameras.”
And Murphy has been a politician since he was a teenager, running for student government partially because it was easier to ask girls for votes than for dates (“Though maybe that was backwards. To win an election you are trying to get 50 percent of the people to like you. You only need to get one girl to yes to get to go on a date with her”). Many stories about Murphy mention that in high school he used to carry a briefcase instead of a backpack. Murphy denies it. “But the reason it keeps getting repeated,” he said, “is because it’s believable.”
He had the kind of ambition that kept him from sticking around in a job more than five years. A couple of years out of Williams College, he won a seat in the Connecticut House of Representatives at 25. By 29, he rose to the state Senate just months after getting his UConn law degree, then knocked off a 12-term Republican incumbent for his district’s seat in Congress in 2006, when he was 33. In 2012, he defeated pro wrestling magnate Linda McMahon for the open U.S. Senate seat.
For a politician who presents himself as being driven by a pure cause, Murphy’s track record suggests he can be easily swayed by partisan dynamics. Earlier this month, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bill that would require the FBI to be notified whenever someone who had been the subject of a federal terrorism investigation within the last 10 years bought a gun. Instead of welcoming another Republican to the debate, Murphy blasted the proposal, saying it will not “come close to stopping a terrorist who wants to buy a gun.” Then again, Rubio is up for reelection, and Murphy is supporting his Democratic opponent.
Murphy did reach across the aisle to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who in 2013 teamed up with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on a compromise gun-control bill. Though the bill failed, Murphy called Toomey “heroic” for flouting GOP orthodoxy. And yet, Murphy is supporting Toomey’s Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, this year — and if Toomey loses, Murphy admits Republicans may decide it’s too dangerous politically to take on gun control.
Toomey commends Murphy as “a senator who actually wants to get things done,” but that when it comes to gun control, “it’s going to take bipartisan support.”
Still, Toomey concedes, “There’s nothing surprising about a Democrat supporting a fellow Democrat.” Especially for a Democrat like Murphy, a politician considered one of the future leaders of the party, alongside Senate colleagues Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker.
Fresh-faced and a natural at working a room, he’s earned comparisons to a young Bill Clinton. During his walk across Connecticut, he gabbed with owners of a horse sanctuary (“horse slaughter is one of the top issues in my state”), a gaggle of college-aged girls gathering in downtown Chester for a fashion show (“I’ll tweet about it!”) and a young couple refurbishing an old RV.
After the road dipped alongside some protected wetlands and curved past a hilltop castle that once belonged to turn-of-the-century stage legend William Gillette, Murphy came across Tom Springfield, a local out for an afternoon constitutional.
“You’re a Democrat,” said Springfield. “Well, s---. We’re not going to agree on anything,” And they didn’t. Springfield said he thought there were too many takers in this country these days, grousing that “great men” of days gone by didn’t need handouts. Murphy pointed out the great men of the past relied on federally built roads and subsidies. Then he handed him a business card with the offer to chat more in the future.
“Wow, you’re a United States senator?” Springfield said, genuinely shocked. “Damn. I’ve actually been able to talk to an important guy. Nobody like me would ever come to you.”
Murphy caught a ferry across the Connecticut River, and walked to a town hall in Chester. As night fell, the roads cleared of people and there were no more stops on his schedule, but Murphy walked another couple of hours just to knock off a few more miles.
At most, Murphy had chatted with a few dozen people that day. Not enough to swing any elections, or boost Congress’s approval rating. But there’s not much a senator can do these days, amid constant gridlock and a presidential election sucking the oxygen out of Washington. Sometimes all you can do is perform, in Murphy’s words, a “feat of legislative strength” — to walk 30 miles in a day, or stand for 15 hours on the Senate floor just to try to show a few people that you are listening to them. Millions of people may have caught glimpses of the filibuster, but the people who mattered most, he said, were the parents at Sandy Hook.
“They don’t expect change overnight, but they want to know I care about it at least one-quarter as much as they care about it,” Murphy said. “The point of the filibuster, part of it anyway, was about showing these parents how deeply I care about the subject, even if I can’t get the change as fast as I want. I will consider myself a failure if I can’t get this done for them — but for now, all I can do is show them I’m trying.”